In a decision made public Tuesday, California labor officials found that a San Francisco-based Uber driver is an employee, not a contractor, in a case that could become a huge win for unions.
In the decision, the California Labor Commission awarded Barbara Ann Berwick, an Uber driver, a large sum of employee expenses she was not previously afforded by the company because she was classified as a contractor. The expenses included mileage reimbursements, toll charges and interest totaling $4,152.20. Though the decision pertained just to Berwick, it and future cases set a precedent that could make it much easier for unions to organize drivers working for companies like Uber.
The driver, according to The Associate Press, filed a claim last year against the ridesharing company over what she claimed was unpaid wages. Uber, however, argued that it is a technological platform used by independent drivers and their passengers.
“It’s important to remember that the number one reason drivers choose to use Uber is because they have complete flexibility and control,” Uber noted in a press release. “The majority of them can and do choose to earn their living from multiple sources, including other ride sharing companies. We have appealed this ruling.”
Shannon Liss-Riordan, a lawyer involved in a class-action lawsuit against the company, disagrees.
“Uber’s obviously been wildly successful because it developed a concept that caught on,” Liss-Riordan told NPR. “But that gives it no excuse to ignore labor laws that have been put into place over decades that protect workers’ rights. Uber is a $50 billion company, it says. And the idea that it somehow can’t afford to pay for what employers are required to pay for is just a little bit beyond belief.”
The Berwick decision and upcoming lawsuits could be the beginning of Uber having to consider all its drivers employees in California and possibly the whole country. Legally speaking, if Uber drivers go from contractors to employees, then the company would have to reimburse them for unemployment benefits, gas, insurance, tolls and other expenses. It would also make it easier for a union to organize drivers. When drivers are considered contractors, a union can only organize one at a time. If the drivers, however, are consider employees they can be grouped into bargaining units which would allow a union to organize a bunch of them at once.
“It should be noted that a bargaining unit can include only persons who are ’employees’ within the meaning of the Act,” The National Labor Relations Board states. “The Act excludes certain individuals, such as agricultural laborers, independent contractors, supervisors, and persons in managerial positions.”
Though contractors can still join a union, it’s much easier to unionize employees because not every one of them necessarily has to agree to be represented. If a union can get the majority of employees within a single bargaining unit to agree to representation, it becomes the Exclusive Representative of all the employees.
“Representatives designated or selected for the purposes of collective bargaining by the majority of the employees in a unit appropriate for such purposes, shall be the exclusive representatives of all the employees,” the National Labor Relations Act states.
If that bargaining until happens to exist in a mandatory dues state, such as California, all the employees within a unionized bargaining until must pay union dues or fees whether they agree with the union or not. The inability to easily organize Uber drivers has put unions at odds with the ridesharing industry but if that changes so too might their support.
Nevertheless, Uber is not all too worried. The company notes the decision involves just one driver and that previous decisions have even yielded different results.
“The California Labor Commission’s ruling is non-binding and applies to a single driver,” Uber stated. “Indeed it is contrary to a previous ruling by the same commission, which concluded in 2012 that the driver ‘performed services as an independent contractor, and not as a bona fide employee.’ Five other states have also come to the same conclusion.”
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